Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew streaked toward Earth on Wednesday to wrap up a 5 million-mile journey highlighted by the successful delivery of a new space station lab.
The shuttle and its seven astronauts were due to touch down at 9:07 a.m. at NASA's spaceport, where their families and top space program managers eagerly awaited their arrival.
Mission Control informed commander Stephen Frick that the landing weather was close to ideal, with just thin clouds and a slight tailwind. "Great news," Frick replied. Soon afterward, he and his co-pilot fired the braking rockets, causing Atlantis to drop out of orbit and begin the fiery hourlong descent.
The re-entry path was to take Atlantis across the South Pacific, over El Salvador and Honduras and then the western tip of Cuba, and up into Florida.
NASA wanted Atlantis back as soon as possible to clear the way for the Navy to shoot down a dying spy satellite on the verge of smashing into Earth with a load of toxic fuel. The missile could be launched as early as Wednesday night, from a warship in the Pacific.
Atlantis circled Earth 202 times during its mission, which began Feb. 7. Nine of those 13 days were spent at the international space station, where the two crews installed the European science lab, Columbus, that was ferried up by the shuttle.
A French astronaut, Leopold Eyharts, remained at the orbiting outpost with an American and a Russian to get Columbus up and running. He replaced NASA astronaut Daniel Tani, who was returning home aboard Atlantis after 120 days in space.
After two months of delay because of fuel gauge trouble, Atlantis ended up with an unusually trouble-free flight. Heaters for a set of small thrusters failed earlier this week, but posed no concern for re-entry. And a radiator hose that was bent before the flight retracted neatly into its box when the payload bay doors were closed in the wee hours for landing.
NASA's next mission is just three weeks away. Endeavour is scheduled to blast off with the first piece of Japan's massive space station lab on March 11.
Atlantis, meanwhile, won't fly again until the end of August, when it takes a team of repairmen to the Hubble Space Telescope for one final tuneup.